Great Southern Land, Antarctica, December 2017


I stood on the shore facing the seventh continent, the great southern land. The barrier between us had always been a small matter of the Southern Ocean – a stretch of water with many a name to describe her fury. Fuelled by the roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties there were stories of legendary storm swells that could swallow a whole ship. My day of reckoning came. I boarded the ship hesitantly in Ushuaia (the southerly most port of Argentina) packed with a chemist shop of seasickness tablets. We threaded our way through the Beagle Channel and out into the open ocean guided by several sooty albatrosses winging alongside. But the drama quickly dissipated as the weather gods granted calm seas for the two day crossing of the Drake Passage to 60 degrees south. (Although the return journey would prove more typical with multiple reports of passengers levitating in bed).

Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole I emerged into Antarctica – a pavlova land of snowy peaks, ice shelfs and glinting blue glaciers. Our expedition travelled for six days around different bays along the Antarctic Peninsula – days filled with wonder as well as lectures on polar history and the weather that has created such a unique & extreme ecosystem. Despite the summer season I was bundled up for subzero weather & galeforce gusts as we trekked to viewpoints over bays & glaciers and skirted noisy penguin rookeries. Some of the penguin chicks were just starting to hatch. Repeated a thousand-fold across the rookery were chaotic scenes of grey fluff being buffeted in the wind and pecking hungrily at adult beaks filled with regurgitated krill. We would spend hours watching penguin partners waddle, hop, stumble and toboggan to and from the nests along penguin highways to the sea to keep the food chain going.
As we cruised from bay to bay we came across different seal species reposed ‘coffee-book style’ on shores and handy icebergs as well as a massive pod of humpback whales bubble net feeding. In groups the whales would blow bubbles underneath the krill schools to scare them into a bait ball and then lunge at the surface. Multiple enormous whale mouths would then burst from the water surface filtering the captured krill.

As incredible as the size and scale of these Antarctic inhabitants are the most indelible impressions are left by the landscape. The land has a unique architecture of ancient ice formed into cliffs, shelfs and moving glaciers. The white and blue scenery can be blinding mirrored in glassy bays. Icing sugar snow drifts across rolling contours and the deep turquoise of crevasses is reflected in sapphire blue seas and capped by cornflower blue skies.

The Antarctic Sound was one of the final highlights as we navigated the narrow passage from the inland Weddell Sea back north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Dubbed ‘iceberg alley’ it is a stretch of sea where massive tabular icebergs that have split away from the Antarctic iceshelves become caught in the circumpolar currents. The drifting icebergs can be hundreds of metres high and the size of cities or even small countries. It has been humbling to experience the majesty of the Antarctic continent for the briefest of sojourns. Blessed be the kind weather gods of the Southern Ocean for the safe return of this landlubber!

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